'Breakthrough': TV Review

National Geographic/Gary S. Chapman
Not quite NatGeo's "30 for 30."

Paul Giamatti upstages Ron Howard and Brett Ratner in this science-driven anthology.

National Geographic Channel is obviously hoping that audiences will approach its new series Breakthrough as a scientific version of ESPN's acclaimed 30 for 30 documentary franchise, right down to the involvement of 30 for 30 producer Asylum Entertainment, as well as two initial directors with 30 for 30 offerings on their resumes.

The admirable Breakthrough goal: Give a top-tier director the opportunity to chronicle cutting-edge scientific innovation in the field of their choosing, showcasing the researchers and trailblazers trying to improve our collective lives, or at least make our collective lives less worse.

After watching six installments of Breakthrough, which premieres on Sunday (November 1) night, the series has a core quality in common with 30 for 30: When the filmmakers get to showcase a true personal investment in the subject matter, the episodes really shine. When the directors approach the subject from a distance, what you get is a by-the-numbers NatGeo special, which isn't a bad thing, but plays as really disappointing given the names involved here. From this batch, examples of the latter outnumber the former, with only one installment that's truly worth seeking out.

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The behind-the-scenes names here are impressive, but NatGeo is doing no favors with overblown boasts that "each hourlong episode is directed by a Hollywood visionary," when a more accurate description would be "Imagine Entertainment is producing, so Ron Howard and Brian Grazer went through the very top of their Rolodexes." Howard, who directs an installment about aging, is probably the closest to earning the "visionary" label, though Peter Berg's work on the Friday Night Lights pilot may push him close as well. Other Breakthrough directors would be better described as Hit-and-Miss Populist (Brett Ratner), Fluke-y Oscar-Winning Writer and Director of the Colin Farrell Flying Horse Movie (Akiva Goldsman), Fierce Actress and Whitney Houston Biopic Helmer (Angela Bassett) and Beloved Character Actor Paul Giamatti. The phrase "visionary" sets an artistic and intellectual bar that none of the Breakthrough filmmakers are actually aspiring to here, even if it sounds sexier than "trying-to-make a point." In terms of technique and perspective, there's little setting these episodes apart.

Actually, the only unqualified filmmaking visionary — there are dozens of legitimate scientific visionaries — in the series is David Cronenberg, who joins chum Giamatti for a casual conversation about a favorite topic — the technological modification of the human body, whether it's a terrifying or uplifting thing.

Cronenberg's appearance is just part of why Giamatti's "More Than Human" is the best of the Breakthrough installments by a wide margin. The only one of the filmmakers to give himself prominent on-screen exposure and the only first-time director in the group, the Sideways star makes a compelling argument that Paul Giamatti Learns About Science Stuff is a TV show the world needs immediately. Giamatti is a self-professed sci-fi geek who begins his story at a nerdy bookstore and then takes a globetrotting journey that takes him from Sao Paolo to Texas to Stockholm to Toronto, checking in on where we currently stand in cyborg and exoskeleton technology, seeing how close machines are to helping the paralyzed walk or giving added strength and endurance to first-responders. Giamatti is a giddy tour guide, balancing a neurotic's nervousness about surrendering the biological to the industrial with a childlike optimism, boosted by fun animated sequences. His passionate engagement with the material elevates it.


Also taking an on-camera role, however briefly, is Bassett in "Water Apocalypse," which begins with the American Horror Story veteran striding through a bone-dry Los Angeles aqueduct with high heels and a white parasol. It's a vivid and provocative image for what then turns out to be an effectively humanizing, but not nearly that visually adventurous, look at how deficits of usable water are having different impacts on places as varied as California's Central Valley, Ethiopia and Australia. Bassett's concentration is on different ways that scientists and engineers are combating drought conditions and she also alternates well between scare tactics and accentuating the hopeful steps that are being taken.

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One of the small heroes of Bassett's documentary is a GE filter helping reclaim water from sewage in an Arizona community, a corporate mention that raises the smallest of hackles given GE's very high profile placement as presenting producer on Breakthrough. This is the kind of conflicted thought you really don't want to be having, but it was even more unavoidable in Goldsman's "Energy From the Edge," in which the Beautiful Mind screenwriter spends 44 minutes looking at outsider mavericks trying, but ultimately coming up just short, to devise brilliant forms of alternative energy. It was hard to get to the end of that doc without expecting a tag along the lines of, "Yeah, We're Trying To Innovate, Too, But We're Also Here Now... GE"

The other three Breakthrough installments are full of interesting moments and real-life characters, but lack focus. Berg's "Fighting Pandemics" eventually finds its most interest in virologist and Ebola survivor Ian Crozier, but his story follows 20 minutes of doctors walking across the screen in slow motion and unsettlingly stylized recreations of disease victims. Ratner's "Decoding the Brain" peaks when it looks at Flashbulb Memories, the way that our recollections of events like 9/11 shift over time, but a long and poorly connected segment on groundbreaking epilepsy treatment plays as an apology for the director's minor seizure scandal associated with the movie Tower Heist. And Ron Howard's "The Age of Aging" is a low-key, but interestingly pragmatic look at the science of prolonging life and whether there are arguments to be made that it's not such a great thing at all.

The Giamatti installment of Breakthrough airs on November 8 and it's the only one I endorse without reservation.

With Breakthrough and a second season of Years of Living Dangerously, NatGeo is investing heavily in star-driven consciousness raising, either as an alternative to or embellishment upon the network's traditional NGS-driven docuseries. It's not a bad thing and I would never get snobby about any viewer who became passionately invested in environmental awareness because Ian Somerhalder made it look cool, but the non-Giamatti installments here, while ideologically laudable, are a reminder that celebrity branding doesn't make a generic documentary any less generic.

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